Danny died today

This article was originally published on 24th August 2008 on Hod's website (the gay religious organisation in Israel) and can be found here. It was written by Golda, a friend of Danny's family. She first tried to have it published within her Chasidic community without any success. It is published here with her kind permission.

Danny died today. He might not have been, probably wasn't, your son or brother or friend, but he was somebody's son or brother or friend. He died because we, as a community, do not educate our children about the things that can kill them. We pretend, as a community, that all children are born the same and there is no room for variation on the common theme of humanity. We do not believe there is room in our community for people like that.

Danny was gay.

There. It's been said.

He died of HIV/AIDS because no one ever told him about that preventable disease. No one in our Chassidic community wanted to accept that he was really gay. They all hoped he'd forget about it, that it was a phase, and that it would just pack up and go back wherever it came from if only they ignored it long enough.

Learning disabilities, child molestation, spousal abuse, alcohol addiction – all of these have been "outed". They've all had their day in the orthodox press, committees have been formed, plans have been made, programs have been developed. Having a handicapped child is no longer stigmatizing. An orthodox alcoholic can find an orthodox AA meeting in New York City, and find sympathetic support from others with his religious beliefs. But a boy or a girl who is born homosexual not only doesn't have that opportunity, their actual existence is denied. They are invisible.

If worldwide statistics hold true, one out of ten children in our classrooms is born with an orientation other than heterosexual. The last time I looked, there were upwards of a million Orthodox Jews in the United States. Leaving me to wonder: What has become of the 100,000 gays and lesbians we should have been blessed with? Are we so successful at educating our children in the fine art of being a mother or father that their gayness is lost? Or is there, sadly, another reason that there are apparently no homosexuals in the Chassidic world? Perhaps it is not their gayness which is lost, but rather, they themselves who are lost, forever excluded and excluding themselves from the rich source of their spirituality. How terrible to feel that one is denied the spiritual aspects of oneself in order to express the sexual aspects. How terrible to have to deny the sexual aspects of oneself in order to feel that one can express the spiritual aspects.

When Danny was four, he lit Shabbos candles with his sisters until his father told him it wasn't something that boys should do. When he was five, he asked his mother if he could marry a man instead of a woman, and understood from her horrified response, that there was something deeply troubling about the idea, something "unclean".

Nevertheless, when he was sixteen, he had his first homosexual experience with another boy in his yeshiva. He had never heard anything about desire, homosexual or otherwise, but he had spent many hours fretting that he might not be normal in his love for other boys. He loved boys. He loved everything about them.

Many of you will be thinking, and I know this because I've heard you say it, that homosexuals are "disgusting animals." One feature associated with most animals is that they are incapable of deceit or trickery. They cannot "choose" to be homosexual. And yet, homosexuality is common amongst many species, including our own. While animals often operate on very primitive levels, it would nevertheless be wrong to describe an anteater as "disgusting" for sticking its long, sticky tongue into a termite nest to extract insects. That is a G-d-given, instinctual action common to all anteaters. It would be wrong, and would in fact lead to the death of the anteater, were it not to act on its instincts. That same anteater might have the instinct to cohabit with another male anteater. Anteaters, remember, aren't deviants. An instinct, by definition, cannot be deviant. Anteaters aren't homosexual just to send right-wing religious folk into paroxysms.

Is this hypothetical anteater then to be shunned and excluded from the community of anteaters because it behaves instinctually? Because it was created with the desire to cohabit with the same sex? We understand, that in the anteater, homosexuality is inborn. We understand that it is inborn in penguins and dolphins, cats, dogs, whales, sheep, monkeys, giraffes, you name it….but somehow there is reluctance when it comes to our own children, to accept that their gayness is inborn, not something they choose for themselves out of rebellion or psychosis.

Danny's parents noticed that he was different from their other boys but they hoped he'd "grow out of it." They closed down conversations in which Danny tried to express his feelings. As Danny grew older, they responded to him ever more rigidly and dogmatically. They knew the name for what their son was, but they didn't share it with him. They were afraid to say the word aloud, even to themselves. They were unable to give Danny the skills he needed to live as himself, because they couldn't admit what that was. They couldn't give him an acceptance that they didn't feel. They never told him about HIV/AIDS, even as it became a very real possibility. They gave him silence.

G-d gives each and every one of us a great gift when we are born. He gives us the chance to choose the way we will live our lives, the mitzvos we will and will not do. The religious police are not sitting in our kitchens or on our headboards at night to make sure that we are following each and every dictate of the Torah perfectly. That would be the job of our consciences.

If I, as a Jew, decide not to use Chalav Yisroel milk, that is ultimately between me and G-d and it is no one else's business. If Danny, as a frum Jew who also happened to be gay, decided to have sex with other men, that was nobody's business but his own. Everybody gets to make their own choices about how they are going to live as a Jew in this world. That is the way G-d, in His infinite wisdom, set it up. That is the only way we can receive any credit, because if all the choices were premade for us, there would be no greatness in choosing wisely. Thus, choice becomes the very foundation stone to our presence here in this world.

If life is a test, only G-d can grade the papers. Not us. We're not wise enough or kind enough, and most importantly, we don't understand the questions, so how can we hope to understand each person's answers?

All of this is to say that there is no way of knowing if Danny's choices in life were any better or worse than mine. They were simply different. Just because a Jew does not observe each and every mitzvah in precisely the same way as everybody else does not mean, cannot mean, that he is disconnected from G-d. He is just as loved as every other Jew. He is just as precious. When Danny had sex with other young men and did mitzvos, he was gay and frum. No contradiction.

But there is a widespread perception that one cannot be frum and gay at the same time. How strange.

How sad.

One may be a gossip and frum at the same time. One may cheat in business or incorrectly weight ones scales and still be considered frum. One may be arrogant and frum. All of these things are described in the same way as homosexuality, as an abomination, and all of these types of people are freely accepted as members of orthodox and Chassidic shuls. We are, after all, flawed human beings who are doing the best we can with what we have, and everyone seems to understand that.

The Torah does not forbid homosexual desire. It does not even forbid homosexual marriage. It does forbid a certain homosexual act. Even performance of that act does not make somebody less Jewish, or even less frum. It makes them human. It indicates that they are indulging in the very human right to make one's own choices. Everyone makes little excuses for their own deviations from the "norm" but for some reason homosexuality has been left out of the loop of forgiveness.

A disciple of the Baal Shem Tov once came to him, all hot and bothered, and eagerly reported the grave sin of another man. "What shall we do, Rebbe?" asked the disciple. "Shall we shun him? Excommunicate him? Punish him?"

"No," said the Baal Shem Tov, "We shall love him even more."

I would like to imagine our community a little different than it currently is. Dare I say a little better? A little wiser, a little less judgmental, and a little easier to live in, a little more loving. We are, after all, the spiritual descendents of the Baal Shem Tov.

I imagine a shul where gay men and women feel welcome. I imagine a school which acknowledges that some of its students are gay, just as it acknowledges and assists those students who have alternate learning styles, or those who are gifted with photographic memories, or those who come from dysfunctional homes. I imagine a community in which there is knowledge and understanding instead of fear and intolerance and shame. I imagine a family in which Danny was seen as an individual, where his differences were noticed early and he was supported in his choices; a home where he was given resources to keep himself safe and healthy, mentally and physically, instead of learning about HIV/AIDS that cold winter morning in the social worker's office in Manhattan, when he was told that he was probably going to die. I imagine a eulogy in which Danny's life was celebrated as it was, as Danny chose it to be, instead of as the Chassidic community wished it had been.

Healing can only come with acceptance. Until there is acceptance of the gay men and women in our community, we can never hope to have a whole community. We will continue to lose children to assimilation, to loveless straight marriages, to infidelity, to divorce, and to HIV/AIDS. We will continue to lose many of the most spiritually attuned children in the classrooms, often those who are most likely to add truth and richness to our understanding of what it means to be Jewish. And we will lose them to the pain of suppressing their unvoiced and unvoicable desire for a partner of the same sex.

Danny died today. Directly, because of HIV/AIDS. Indirectly, because of our silence.

It's time to talk.